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Wikileaks: UN Declaration Raised US Fears Over Indigenous Land Rights, Sovereignty, Anti-Free Market Movements

The U.S. feared that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) would help Indigenous Peoples assert their right of sovereignty over their lands and resources, according to cables released by the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks.

The United States apparently feared that the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) would help Indigenous Peoples assert their right of sovereignty over their lands and resources, according to cables released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

The cables also purport to reveal the federal government’s preoccupation with Bolivia’s democratically elected president, Evo Morales, and the indigenous leaders who admire him and oppose laws that would open Native territories to oil, mining and logging companies.

In August, WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of unredacted, classified U.S. government diplomatic cables. Though open to interpretation, they offer considerable insight into U.S. foreign policy and paint an unusually detailed picture of secret sources and political intrigue.

On January 28, 2008, the U.S. embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, sent a cable to the U.S. State Department titled “Bolivia; Repercussions of UN DRIP [sic],” regarding Morales’s signing of the declaration into Bolivian law on November 7, 2007. The cable appears to express concern over Morales’s approval: “The new law contradicts existing land laws, and therefore will be subject to judicial interpretation when it begins to be cited in legal cases.” The U.S. had voted against the General Assembly adoption of the declaration in September 2007.

According to WikiLeaks, the cable also examines how Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism party, which won an overwhelming majority in the 2005 elections—and would do so again in 2009 and 2010—had included indigenous rights in a draft national constitution. The constitution, the cable reportedly notes, “closely mirrors the U.N. declaration text, granting indigenous Bolivians rights to land and renewable resources on that land, rights to a share in the benefits of non-renewable resources, rights to be consulted on any law that ‘might affect them,’ rights to self-governance, rights to participation in all levels of government, and prioritized rights to state benefits.”

It continues, “If the draft constitution passes, it would take precedent over other Bolivian laws and could therefore carry more weight in judicial interpretation when it contradicts existing land laws. Although most indigenous leaders seem to view the U.N. declaration as a ‘feel good’ document that will give them more inclusion in the public sector, some leaders are citing the declaration in support of concrete aims like self-governance and control over land and resources.”

The embassy promised to “watch for further developments, particularly with regards to property rights and potential sovereignty or self-rule issues.”

The cable was signed by former U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, an appointee of former president George W. Bush. Bolivia expelled Goldberg in September 2008, accusing him of spying and “fomenting the civil unrest that threatens not only the country’s first indigenous Indian president, Evo Morales, but the unity of the nation itself,” according to TheTelegraph of London. The U.S. has denied Morales’s allegations.

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Another cable, with the subject line “?‘Evo Morales Is Our President’: The Anti-System Project,” may reflect U.S. concern over Bolivia’s popular indigenous leader. Sent from the embassy in Lima, Peru, to the State Department on June 26, 2009, it alludes to actions by former Peruvian President Alan García, who pushed through legislation in line with the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas in October 2007. The legislation placed foreign multinational mining companies at the center of García’s economic development program and awarded huge tracts of traditional indigenous lands in the Amazon region to foreign mining and energy interests.

The cable considers that the indigenous protests inspired by García’s legislation might foment anti-government criticism and a backlash against what the cable calls the “pro-growth” or “neo-liberal economic model” favored by the U.S. The communiqué characterizes opposing forces as “anti-system.”

“Whatever the legitimacy of the protesters’ disparate underlying grievances and aspirations,” the cable says, “anti-system elements have successfully used the protests to fan a growing chorus of criticism against President García, the entire government, private investment in general and the ‘neoliberal’ economic model.”

Despite Peru’s recent “economic success,” the cable reportedly says, “anti-system radicals” could take “political advantage” of the “persistent endemic poverty and social inequality, the absence of state from large swaths of national territory, and clumsy, sometimes jarring public action when the state does intervene…to undermine Peru’s progress, weaken the government and lay the groundwork for a more systematic assault on the pro-growth model. Public and private statements by the diverse and not necessarily unified leaders of the anti-system movement paint a compelling portrait of their real aims, which can be summarized in the words of one Peruvian indigenous leader that ‘Evo Morales is our president.’ Foreign participation in this anti-system movement, including from Bolivia, is real.”

The “jarring action” refers to a tragic encounter in June 2009, just weeks before the cable was written. Twenty-three police and at least 10 civilians in Bagua, north of the Amazonas region, died in clashes that had turned violent after months of protests by the indigenous Awajún or Aguaruna people. They rose up against García’s policy of giving contracts to private companies for oil, mining and logging on their lands without prior consultation.

While the embassy cable describes Peru as “a regional good news story,” citing its “sustained, solid economic growth, burgeoning trade and foreign investment,” it reportedly states that Peru’s “real agenda” has not overcome the country’s endemic poverty. “If poverty rates have fallen to below 40 percent,” the cable says conditionally, “a politically significant number of Peruvians continues to live in precarious conditions with close to 20 percent of the population at or near subsistence level.”

WikiLeaks also said the cable discusses the uneven distribution of wealth and how most of Peru’s poverty is found in indigenous regions: “One of García’s closest political advisors told us the president’s principal frustration relates to the institutional dysfunctionality [sic] and inefficiency of the state apparatus at all levels, which undermines the transition from political vision, plan or marching order to real progress on the ground.” The cable does not name the informant.

According to WikiLeaks, the cable further states that the embassy monitored indigenous leaders, including Miguel Palacin, a leader of Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indigenas (CAOI), or the Andean Coordination of Indigenous Organizations, a pan-Andean indigenous group based in Lima. Palacin was described as having organized “parallel anti-summits” against the European Union and Latin America and Caribbean summits in 2008.

“Tellingly, Palacin’s office displays Bolivian flags and a presidential portrait of Evo Morales. Palacin recently told us he sees Bolivia as a model for Peru, and that indigenous people consider Morales ‘our president,’?” the cable says. It notes that Palacin had told the embassy his goal was to “overhaul” García’s pro-growth cabinet and procure “property titles for all indigenous land (hinting that once this had occurred there would be no land left for private development), and ultimately to write a new constitution incorporating language from the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”